Jacques Derrida, Thinker Who Influenced and Infuriated a Range of Humanistic Fields, Dies at 74

Jacques Derrida, the thinker whose concept of "deconstruction" influenced at least two generations of scholarship in the humanities, died in Paris on Friday at the age of 74. The director of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, Derrida also held a professorship at the University of California at Irvine, beginning in 1986. Irvine houses an archive of Derrida's manuscripts.

News that the philosopher was in treatment for pancreatic cancer had been circulating among his students and admirers since the spring of 2003. In a statement from the office of Jacques Chirac, the French president announced the death "with sadness," calling Derrida "one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time," whose work was "read, discussed, and taught around the world."

Discussion of Derrida's complex legacy (always a topic of heated debate, informed and otherwise) will undoubtedly continue for years to come -- particularly in the United States, where his work has had a devoted following. One of Derrida's earliest formulations of deconstruction -- the landmark essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" -- was delivered at a now-legendary conference at the Johns Hopkins University in 1966.

By the early 1970s, a few American scholars had taken up deconstruction as one of the most challenging approaches to emerge in the wake of "the structural revolution" in French critical thought. Derrida offered not so much a theory as a new way of reading.

The deconstructive analysis of literary or philosophical writings involved teasing out the nuggets of inescapable complexity. Reading a dialogue by Plato, a scene in Shakespeare, or one of Freud's essays, Derrida would locate a moment in the text when some concept or image proved impossible to reconcile with whatever theme or argument seemed to drive the rest of the work. Then, from that interpretive sticking point, he would work his way back through the text, patiently revealing intricate networks of meaning and otherwise hidden levels of internal conflict.

It was an approach that could push one's mental stamina to the limits. In her novel about French intellectual life in the 1960s and '70s, The Samurai, Julia Kristeva, a professor of literature at the University of Paris, portrays Derrida as the character Saida, whose seminars "irritated the philosophers and reduced the literature merchants to silence." (Both, she writes, "were confronted with their own transcendental stupidity.") He "broke down word into its minutest elements, and from these seeds produced shoots so flexible he could later weave them into his own dreams, his own literature, rather ponderous but as profound as it was inaccessible."

"This," the novel goes on, "was how he started to acquire his reputation as a guru, which was to overwhelm the United States and the American feminists."

A much less sardonic account of the thinker's appeal to young American intellectuals of the early 1970s came from Peggy Kamuf, the translator of numerous works by Derrida, including Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (Routledge, 1994) and Resistances of Psychoanalysis (Stanford University Press, 1998). Ms. Kamuf, a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California, recalled on Saturday what it was like to read Derrida's work as a graduate student at Cornell University in 1970.

"There was a sense of urgency when we encountered it," she said, "urgency in the context of the American political circumstances at the time. It was a few months after Kent State. But we were intellectuals who were not willing just to condemn the university, to renounce rigor of thought, in order to get out into the streets."

Derrida's theory, she said, offered a way to perform serious intellectual work in the humanities while maintaining "that urgency of response to the abuses of power" that fed political engagement.

Another student of that era spoke of the exhilaration Derrida's work provoked in the early years of the deconstructive invasion. "For those of us in literature," said Forest Pyle, an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon, "it was extraordinarily exciting to see a philosopher reading texts in a way that was rigorous and careful, that showed things that had remained unseen before."

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s, Mr. Pyle studied with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who had translated Derrida's book Of Grammatology (originally published in 1967). The practice of deconstructive analysis "engaged our interpretive skills, and pushed our reading beyond any prescribed boundaries."

"It was intellectually exciting and politically hopeful," he said.

It was also alarming, at least to some literary scholars. René Wellek, an eminent figure in comparative literature and the author of an eight-volume history of literary theory and criticism, denounced the approach in The New Criterion in 1983, saying that Derrida had provided "license to the arbitrary spinning of metaphors, to the stringing of puns, to mere language games."

Deconstruction, he wrote, "has encouraged utter caprice, extreme subjectivity, and hence the destruction of the very concepts of knowledge and truth."

Someone loyal to Derrida could readily cite passages in which the thinker insisted that he respected "all the instruments of traditional criticism" -- since otherwise, "critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything."

By the 1980s, deconstruction had grown into a phenomenon much larger than Derrida's own work. A prominent group of literary critics at Yale University (including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller) used Derridean methods to analyze Romantic and Victorian literature.

As their students fanned out across the country, they met resistance -- and not just from those who rejected deconstruction itself. Other currents influenced by Derrida stressed his roots in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger or sought to bring Derrida together with Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial concerns.

The field of deconstructionist literary scholarship underwent a severe crisis following the revelation, in 1987, that de Man, arguably the most influential critic associated with the "Yale school," had published numerous articles in a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium during World War II. That same year, a well-publicized book on Heidegger's membership in the Nazi party provoked still more soul-searching among French deconstructionist thinkers and their American acolytes. And other theoretical approaches began to displace deconstruction from its former eminence in American literary scholarship.

That was not, however, the end of the story.

While his American readers argued over how to understand his work from earlier years, or how to handle the embarrassing disclosures about de Man and Heidegger, Derrida himself continued to publish at a bewildering pace, including writings on art criticism, law, psychoanalysis, and social theory. He also began to emerge as a kind of theologian sui generis.

"He acquired a whole new life in the academy in the last 15 years or so," said John D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University, and the author of The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997). "He began to talk about what he called 'the undeconstructible.' When Derrida was in vogue among literary theorists, you would not have heard that expression. The idea that deconstruction could be carried out in the name of something undeconstructible -- you just didn't hear from literary folks. But in his later work, he began to talk about the undeconstructibility of justice, of democracy, of friendship, of hospitality."

Some scholars have referred to "the ethico-political turn" in Derrida's work during the 1990s. Interest in his writings increased among philosophers, and also among those in religious studies.

In earlier years, some commentators on Derrida's work had wondered whether his exacting attention to texts might not make him, in effect, a secular practitioner of the reading skills cultivated by centuries of Talmudic scholars. (Indeed, Derrida had hinted as much himself: His book Writing and Difference closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named Derrisa.)

In interviews and autobiographical texts from his final decade, he began to speak about growing up as a Jew in Algeria during the Vichy period. More and more of his writing began to take the form of an overt dialogue with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish thinker who worked at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy, ethical reflection, and biblical commentary.

"The idea of something of unconditional value begins to emerge in Derrida's work -- something that makes an unconditional claim on us," said Mr. Caputo. "So the deconstruction of this or that begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish theology."

In 2002 Derrida gave the keynote address at the convention of the American Academy of Religion, held in Toronto. Speaking to a crowded auditorium, the philosopher said, "I rightly pass for an atheist" -- a puzzling formulation, by any measure.

Mr. Caputo recalled that other scholars asked Derrida, "Why don't you just say, 'Je suis. I am an atheist'?" Derrida replied, "Because I don't know. Maybe I'm not an atheist."

"He meant that, I think, the name of God was important for him," said Mr. Caputo, "even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi, he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important for him because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional, the undeconstructible."

It also sounds, in hindsight, like a reasonably safe metaphysical wager.

*this article was published at The Chrocile on Monday, October 11, 2004, written by SCOTT MCLEMEE